UNIVERSAL DARKNESS: On the definition of film noir. (Stanley Fish, 6/10/24, The Lamp)

Next year I shall be teaching a course in film noir for the first time, and I thought it might be useful to set down my thoughts about the genre. Definitions and lists of characteristics are not hard to come by. Many websites will tell you that film noir movies were shot in sharply contrasting black and white, made liberal use of flashbacks, and flourished between 1940 and 1958 with a number of “neo-noir” films, some in color, appearing even to the present day; that film noir heroes or anti-heroes are cynical, world-weary, bitter, and vulnerable to the seductive wiles of sensual and duplicitous women; that these men and women play out their doomed lives in a landscape of corruption, betrayals, double crosses, and plans gone awry; that everyone and everything in the film noir universe is at the mercy of chance, accident, and a general, even miasmic, malevolence; that these movies were especially appealing in the context of the pessimism generated by World War II and a post-war malaise brilliantly documented in a film that is not noir but has noir touches, William Wyler’s masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

But for my money, this list of noir elements casts too wide a net. As far as I am concerned, it’s not noir unless at its center is a moment when a line is crossed and someone, almost always a man, starts on a path that leads inevitably not only to his own destruction but to the destruction of everyone and everything he touches. It is tempting to speak of this moment as a choice, but it is better characterized as a slide, a slide from what had been a more or less ordinary existence to a toboggan ride down to hell with no hope of a reversal of motion. Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes (Double Indemnity, 1944) puts it best when he says of the lovers-murderers he has not yet fully identified, “It’s not like taking a trolley-ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

The Hays Code gave us great art.


Hope and Optimism on the Planet of the Apes (Tyler Hummel, 5/17/24, Voegelin View)

As a story told from the apes’ perspective, it is a strangely optimistic trilogy. The ape’s near-literal exodus from confinement to the promised land creates one of the strangest Moses allegories in contemporary fiction, while still being about humorous talking monkeys. The human characters that form the ensemble never return between movies, due to being implicitly killed off. Caesar, Maurice, and Koba are the most empathetic and consistent characters of the trilogy, and the story of apes seeking their freedom—united by brotherhood and loyalty—is the lone spot of hope in a franchise where the only possible ending is the end of the world and the fated end of mankind.

They’re endowed by their Creator with the right to self-determination.


The Birth of Yoda: Manichaeism and the Jedi Religion (Joseph Wilson5/04/24, Voegelin Views)

Jediism now has real-life adherents (whether serious or otherwise) and one modern UK census (2011) revealed that Jedi was the seventh largest religion in that kingdom, dwarfing British Scientology (another so-called “religion” founded by a science-fiction auteur).

In Jediism, world-mythology merges with adventure and fantasy fiction, combining Akira Kurosawa’s Buddhist and samurai themes with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christian allegories. A historical Buddhist master is the most likely model for Yoda. We can only guess which varied influences account for Yoda’s extreme longevity. Biblical Methuselah lived more than 900. Tolkien’s Gandalf lived more than 2000. The historical second-century Buddhist patriarch Nagarjuna lived to more than 700 (according to legend). Padmasambava (Tibet’s “second Buddha”) allegedly dissolved like a Jedi into a rainbow body of light. The oldest attested ending of the oldest attested Christian gospel (the “short” ending of the Gospel according to Mark) depicts Jesus of Nazareth simply disappearing from his tomb with the witnesses running scared.

British Jedis might outnumber Scientologists, but Lucas was not the first savant to forge a universalizing hybrid religion. Yoda’s esoteric roots are ancient. Yoda’s very name may in fact be derived from an obscure Christianization of the name “Bodhisattva” (lit: “Enlightenment Being” a.k.a. one who will attain Buddhahood), distorted in transit to Christian Europe on the trade routes, and preserved among the various Buddhist and Christian scriptures sacred to a different ancient religion: Manichaeism.
Gnosticism and Manichaeism: Religion of Light

Tolkien’s “Catholic myth”, Lord of the Rings, deeply influenced Star Wars. Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf seems to be one of Lucas’s primary models for Obi Wan Kenobi. Paralleling Kenobi’s ill-fated duel with the Sith Lord Vader on the Death Star, Gandalf also died in single combat against an enemy clothed in shadow (the Balrog Durin’s Bane who lived in the Mines of Moria). He was later resurrected and arrived during the crucial battle scene, having been transformed into a luminous white form. His triumphal return to aid the war effort proved decisive at the battle of Helm’s Deep, just as Kenobi’s transcendent Force Ghost proved to be Luke Skywalker’s decisive aid at the Battle of Yavin.

Nonetheless George Lucas’ homage to Tolkien is clearly Gnostic, not Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant. (“Gnostic”, referring to esoteric knowledge, is a somewhat controversial umbrella term for various early Judeo-Christian heresies most of which can be characterized as “anti-materialist”). At the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, the luminous resurrection of three deceased Jedis (Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker) differs from mainstream Christianity’s tenet of material/bodily resurrection. It instead conforms closely to Gnosticism’s non-material/spiritual resurrection. The Force Ghost is pure light/energy, not “crude matter.” The overtly Gnostic implications of Jedi resurrection have been known to trouble Christian apologist Star Wars fans. The similarity between Jediism and Gnosticism runs deep.


Dune and progressive media illiteracy (Jaimee Marshall, 3 May, 2024, The Critic)

Dune is no exception to this baffling media illiteracy. There has been no shortage of op-eds released in recent years disparaging Frank Herbert’s novel and Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations as an orientalist white saviour story that simultaneously culturally appropriates Middle Eastern culture while erasing representations of its people. These criticisms ring hollow if you engage with the story in any thoughtful manner. Dune cannot be accurately characterised as a white saviour story when its explicit thesis is that we should be wary of self-appointed saviours, of charismatic leaders who claim a benevolent desire to liberate people from their oppression, regardless of their race.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Denis Villeneuve said, “When the first novel came out, Frank Herbert was disappointed by the way the book has been perceived. We felt that the readers were thinking that Dune was a celebration of Paul Atreides, but rightly the opposite. His intentions were to make a cautionary tale, a warning towards messianic figures.” This caused Herbert to write a follow-up book called Dune: Messiah, where the dangers of blind allegiance are spelled out more clearly. In Villeneuve’s film adaptation, he transformed Chani’s character into a more prominent, sceptical, and outspoken character. “Through her eyes, we understand what Paul becomes and in which direction he goes, which transformed the movie not into a celebration but as Frank Herbert was wishing, more of a warning,” Villeneuve explains. Chani becomes the moral centre that the audience identifies with, which awakens them to the warning signs of what Paul is about to become.


Better a slow horse than a show horse (Jon D. Schaff, March 12, 2024, Current)

Maybe literary/philosophical figures such as Jackson Lamb, Socrates, Columbo and the rest exist to puncture our pretensions. In the specific case of those I just explicitly mentioned, the enigmatic characters exist to bring down the high and mighty, those who think they are smarter, wiser, better than everyone else. That is why each of those characters has a comic element. There is an ironic twist in, for instance, a Columbo story in which the seemingly mighty are brought low while the humble Columbo is shown to be the master of circumstances, always one step ahead of the pretentious fool who believes himself to be ahead of Columbo. This makes Columbo a comedic figure, the low man brought high. Yet, Columbo never lords over the criminal, rubbing the criminal’s face in his defeat. He mostly expresses pity that someone so obviously talented has gone so wrong.

We can draw from these characters the lesson of humility. Even Prince Hal, when he rises to Henry V, expresses doubts about his rule, agonizing over the cost of his decision to make war against France. Can we be humble in our successes? Can we avoid being the objects of the Socrates’ and Columbo’s, a person of inflated ego begging for someone to bring us down a peg? It may be better to be a slow horse than a foolish horse.


Human Dignity and the Politics of Dune : Dune: Part Two contains conservative truths about human nature the fate of political faiths. (Kody W. Cooper, 3/22/24, Law & Liberty)

As the story progresses so does Jessica’s pregnancy, and the audience sees Paul’s fully human sister develop with striking visuals inside the womb, portraying Alia from her embryonic to later stages. At one point on the threat of death, Lady Jessica is forced to ingest a poisonous substance that the Fremen call the “Water of Life,” which sends her into life-threatening convulsions. But the Fremen did not know she was pregnant. When they realize they unwittingly endangered the baby girl, they lament: What have we done!?

Rarely has the silver screen featured such a powerful, if subtle, moral condemnation of chemically-induced abortion. Dune sends a clear message that human life has dignity from the moment of conception.


A Comedy of Bureaucratic Errors : Slow Horses is a spy thriller worthy of Gordon Tullock. (g. patrick lynch, 3/15/24, Law & Liberty)

Until the 1960s, scholars modeled individuals in the public sector as public-spirited in their motivations and work. One of the founding fathers of public choice, the irascible Gordon Tullock worked in the US foreign service in China after completing law school. That experience, and his general skepticism about—well—everything, prompted him to turn his attention to the administrative state. Tullock and his Nobel prize-winning co-author James Buchanan built a model of politics that posited politicians and bureaucrats as self-interested rather than public-spirited and rational rather than angelic. They also included the idea that politics is an exchange process, much like a market. Using those two assumptions, they turned the world of political analysis upside down.

Tullock’s career was illustrious and varied. His work on bureaucracies included two important books studying the administrative state that provided fresh ways to analyze the government agencies that all of us caricature from time to time. We know that the public sector can be inefficient and sclerotic. Bureaucrats avoid responsibility and try to claim credit, and without market signals, the quality of their work is difficult to judge. Taking those institutional constraints and assuming individuals are not angels once they are hired by the government, Tullock argued that bureaucrats work for the same reasons all of us do: to make a living, be happy with our work, and gain the esteem and approbation of others. Because metrics to measure “good” work are hard to find in large non-market organizations, promotion is often more about flattery, popularity, and serving your superior’s wishes, which can lead to consensus views and uniformity of opinion, even incorrect ones.

Faulty opinions and unconstrained loyalty loom large in Herron’s world, and he balances realism with a dark humor that’s smart and frequently disarming. I doubt he is familiar with Tullock’s work, but they are kindred spirits in their pursuit of a more realistic way of understanding modern life within large institutions. The premise of the show illustrates another key insight of Tullock: it’s almost impossible to fire incompetent bureaucrats. Slow Horses is based on a fictitious place where MI5 sends those agents who have messed up. Rather than trying to fire them, the flawed agents are sent to a building called “Slough House” run by the aforementioned Jackson Lamb. Lamb is something to behold. He hilariously curses, ridicules, and mocks. But he is also gifted and revered even among the leadership of MI5. Under all of his bluster and cynicism, he helps guide the group in each season through the dangers of spying to endings that might not be “happy” but avoid as much carnage and chaos as possible.


Barbie and the Franken-Feminists: The recent films Barbie and Poor Things try to reinvent the woman—and fail. (Noah Millman, January 26, 2024, Modern Age)

There’s a lot of gleeful mockery of the overtly retrograde sexism of the manosphere, as well as the general idiocy of men, all deserving targets. But what was most striking to me about this vision of the corruption of Barbieland is not its sexism but its sexlessness. The Kens may have taken over, but they and the Barbies still don’t have the foggiest idea what they might have to do with one another. Ken still wants Barbie’s attention—but why? The corrupted Barbies now want to fawn over the Kens—but why? Ken’s transformation doesn’t transform the Barbies into sex slaves; it transforms them into simulacra of them, forms without content.

Is that true to the experience of prepubescent girls and boys? Perhaps. In our porn-saturated age, kids still don’t really understand what sex is, but they’ve usually seen quite a bit of it before they are ready to understand, and that does prompt a certain amount of confused playacting (playacting that can nonetheless become all too real). But it’s still deeply ironic that Barbie, a toy that was originally based on a German novelty sex doll named Lilli, not only doesn’t have any interest in sex but doesn’t seem to know what sex is.

What’s more notable, though, is that Gloria, who comes from the real world and has infected Barbie with her adult fears, doesn’t enlighten her either. Her much-quoted eleven o’clock number is a passionate rant about the impossibility of being a woman, which turns out to be the key to deprogramming the Barbies from their masculinist brainwashing. But it offers no explanation for why women might be vulnerable to male emotional demands, or, indeed, why Ken would be in Barbieland in the first place. It’s also striking in that regard that Gloria’s own husband is a completely useless appendage, that we have no view at all into the nature of her adult marriage. It’s more troubling still that Gloria’s daughter is largely an appendage as well; the director of Lady Bird surely knows how to portray a mother–daughter conflict, so the fact that Gerwig barely sketches one in here tells the audience something important about the nature of the project: that she’s primarily interested in peddling sentiments, ones that come prepackaged in a box just as surely as Barbie does.

Structurally, Barbie is a quest narrative. The hero’s quest, initially, is to save her home, but after accomplishing that Barbie questions whether it is truly home anymore. It turns out what she really needs is to become a real girl—or, since she’s fully grown, a real woman. That makes Barbie a variation on Pinocchio, but the wooden boy wanted to be real from the beginning (at least in Disney’s animated version of the tale) and had to earn that privilege by demonstrating courage, loyalty, and other virtues despite being easily distractible (as boys so often are). Barbie’s quest for most of the film has been the opposite: to avoid becoming real. It isn’t until the end of the film that she has her “aha” moment and reverses course. She gets her wish, symbolized by her first visit to a gynecologist—suggesting, for the first time, that being a woman has something to do with being embodied as one, that womanhood isn’t only a matter of either false or raised consciousness. But we never do find out what Barbieland’s enduring purpose might be or how Barbie’s journey toward real womanhood might connect with the journey that the entirely real girls who play with her must themselves undertake.

Hilariously, the quest ends with her receiving the capacity for sex.

MAGA AND THE WORM (spoiler alert):

Dune: Part Two and the Death of Freedom (JOSEPH HOLMES, MARCH 6, 2024, Religion & Liberty)

[I]t’s the subversive themes of Dune: Part Two that stick with you after the credits roll. Because while the film ends with a victorious Paul Atreides, the film’s protagonist, who avenges House Atreides against House Harkonnen, he is far from a heroic liberator, as he morphs into a despot himself, waging a holy war against the rest of the empire that will lead to tyranny and genocide just as his dreams predict. Fans of the original Dune novels know that this was always Frank Herbert’s intent, to warn against how easy it is to embrace the worship of a messianic political figure who becomes a worse tyrant than what you had before.


Kiki’s Delivery Service & The Gift Economy (Houston Coley, Dec 28, 2023, Rabbit Room)

For what it is, I don’t think Kiki’s Delivery Service is even being entirely intentional about its depiction of the concept, but perhaps the notions of reciprocal gifts and hospitality are marginally more baked into the culture of Japan than much of the west. Kiki is a character who survives and thrives on gifts—gifts which draw her further into relationship with others.

The opening 10 minutes of the film feature two major gifts: Kiki’s iconic flying broomstick, which belonged to her mother and is said to “never lose its way, even in a storm,” and Kiki’s bright red portable radio, which is gifted by her father. As Kiki sets off into the brave world, broomstick coasting on the breeze and radio blasting ‘Rouge no Dengon’ by Yumi Matsutoya, she is already resting on the bed of generosity from her parents.

Many other gifts follow. When it begins to thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Kiki drops down into an empty boxcar and sleeps in the hay, serendipitously carried by the train to her next destination. When she arrives in the seaside town of Koriko, after wandering around aimlessly for an afternoon and being refused housing at various hotels because she’s not an adult, Kiki happens to meet the pregnant baker Osono. Osono is running out of her bakery holding a pacifier belonging to a woman and her baby who left moments ago—and in Kiki’s first act of generosity with her magic, she offers to fly the pacifier down to them at the bottom of the hill, leaving Osono gaping with wonder at her abilities.

Kiki’s singular gift—using her flying broomstick to deliver a small object to a woman who needs it—prompts Osono to invite her inside and offer her the hospitality of a cup of coffee…along with a bowl of milk for Kiki’s black cat Jiji. After hearing Kiki’s situation, she also generously extends the first major gift Kiki receives in Koriko: she offers to let her have the spare bedroom next to her bakery to stay for free, even if it’s caked in baking flour. Kiki, in turn, offers on numerous occasions to help out around the bakery.

Kiki’s ability to use her gift to give is what prompts her to consider a delivery service in the first place, reasoning that “I have one skill—flying—so I thought a delivery service was a good idea.” Kiki suggests using the money she’s saved up to pay for a phone for the delivery service, but Osono subsequently (and generously) says she’ll allow Kiki to use her phone and her bakery as the headquarters instead…and even spreads the word to her friends about what Kiki is doing.

As Kiki’s delivery service gains popularity, the concept of gifts becomes central to her life. The first thing Kiki delivers is a birthday gift, and when she returns from the delivery, Osono’s husband has kindly crafted her own “delivery service” signage for her from wood.

If you haven’t clued into it already, many of the characters in Kiki’s Delivery Service are just all-around lovely. I remember the first time I watched the movie, I was anxiously waiting for the moment when the “twist villain” would show up, more in line with western animation, and introduce the necessity of contrived conflict into the story. But the delightful thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that there are no real villains; just people being kind and generous to each other, and sometimes misunderstanding or getting burned out and nervous. It’s one of the reasons the movie is a comfort watch, and one of the reasons it’s a touching example of gift economy.